The next time someone asks me for a recommendation about a book involving time travel, wormholes, high technology, and something resembling a dystonia, I would recommend this book. Not because this book is a science fiction book, but it uses elements of science fiction (or you could call it magic realism, though I think sci-fi is more appropriate) to tell the story of the times we live in, how technology, science, communications, war, and refugees all play a role in the dramatic events of the world we live in. In other words, this is a science fiction novel that genuinely explores who we are as a people living at the edge of an uncertain future.
And the paradox is that this story is also timeless because all through history humanity has lived on the edge of an uncertain future. We carry the past with is as we go about our present lives as we plan for the unknown future. We exist in three different states: the past, the present, and the future, and these three states are always converging back in on themselves. The future influences the present because we must plan for it, and the past influences the present because it informs us of who we are (which we rely on to plan for the future). Space time is, after all curved, so perhaps time itself is trying to fold back in on itself?
The heart of the story, however has little to do with anything science fiction because this is a work of literary fiction and it deals with the lives of twp people, Nadia and Saeed, two people who are very different, but who have converged in a particular place (an unnamed country which experiences a civil war from which they flee), and we follow them as they make their way further and further west, first on a Greek Island, then the Island of Britain (London), and finally Marin, California on the shore edge of the frontier of the New World. How they get tho these places is immaterial – literally, since it seems a sort of wormhole created from the past, present, and future collapsing in on themselves have allowed for travel anywhere in the world.
Yet the wormhole idea is only a way to explain how the whole world is experiencing the vast migrations of people, many of whom are refugees from war torn countries and now find themselves in western countries who are full of people who are anxious about them being there. One element which jumped out at me, and which Hamid explores a few times, is how the “nativists” (as he usually calls them) would stir up trouble under the guise of it being caused by the refugees in order to exacerbate anxieties and tensions in order to make the refugees pariahs. This is not to say Hamid makes everyone of the refugees out to be saints, but he is pointing out how difficult it is for someone who no longer has a home to find a new home. And it’s not like refugees are unaware that they are living in a new place and that if the roles were reversed they might also be anxious about a bunch of foreigners showing up in their homes.
And what this book is ultimately doing is humanizing the refugees. Saeed and Nadia are the “every-people” who represent all those nameless and faceless refugees we see on the news. Hamid gives them a story, gives them a life, and he allows us to see their humanity, to feel as they do, which is to say that they are no different than we are in the most important ways: that we are all human. And Hamid is also saying that we are going to have to deal with the future being a state of unknown change and that it’s going to go better if we work together more instead of fighting with each other. This might seem idealistic, but the counterpoint is one of civil war and violence.
Because in the end our time, the time for each of us as individual humans, will come to and end. We will lug our past so far into the future that the future will no longer have time for us and we will be cast out. The best we can hope for is to not have done too much damage to ourselves and each other and perhaps leave something of ourselves behind, perhaps in the form of children, or at least in the the kindness we show others.